You’re on the subway. It smells, as subways do. And it’s crowded, as subways are. That’s when you start slowly rocking back and forth. Rotating your shoulders in a rhythmic calm, trying not to think about the mystery liquid on the seat next to you.
Do you think it would work?
Sway, a $3 iOS app by UsTwo’s Nordic office and the Danish mental wellness company Pauseable, wants to bring meditation to some of the least pleasant moments of your day. But unlike apps like Headspace, which instruct you to sit still and silently in a quiet space as you listen to an instructor guide you to meditative bliss, Sway encourages you to meditate in a less instructive way.
To find calm amid the storm of your commute, the app coaxes you to move in slow, subtle gestures using sound–a method known by some as “mindful movement.” It’s a form of meditation uniquely suited to a world of smartphone users.
Whether it’s knitting or Candy Crush, most of us have a need to fidget–a need that psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls microflow. But fidgeting is not mindfulness, argues Pausable founder Peng Cheng. The problem with fidgeting tools–be it a gem-matching app or fidget cube–is that they call attention to themselves rather to the individual. They offer distraction rather than mindful introspection. Sway was inspired by objects, too: prayer beads, meditation balls. Yet these are objects that drive us to mindfulness through movement–the sort of mindfulness you might get through the forms of tai chi, no lotus position required.
Sway builds upon Cheng and UsTwo’s first meditation app, Pause. Pause was pitched as tai chi for your finger–and while it was clever, it was still just your finger moving itself across a screen. It was a meditative practice that still called attention to your phone. With Sway, the team distanced the user from their phone, decreasing the amount of screen time it takes to use it. “We borrowed the same principle and applied it–enabled by motion technology–to make all your body movements an opportunity,” says Cheng. “There are no rules. You can use in your hands, pocket, walking, stretching the shoulders.”
I wish I’d heard that before the first time I used Sway. Following unclear on-screen instructions, I waved my phone in my hand like I was waving it in the crowd of a concert. I was confused. Was my phone meant to be hypnotizing me? My arm began to get tired. And I kept being chastised that I was moving too fast or slow by on-screen prompts. Though I must admit, it’s a clever use of the accelerometer–the only bit of input that this meditation app is getting from me.
Cheng clarified that, despite the lilac mountainscapes on screen, I was actually meant to drop my phone into my pocket. Trying that, it’s an entirely different experience. You hear an ethereal soundscape–the sort of track you’d hear piped through a boombox at a massage studio–but with the phone in my pocket, I don’t notice any other feedback from the UI. I can simply move. I try turning my hips like a corkscrew, as Cheng suggested, then I attempt a hippie, slow-jam lean to the left and right. Finally I settle on a very slow pacing around the room.
At the end of my first (properly executed) three-minute session, I feel fine, but I’m not sure I feel better than if I’d taken any three-minute break from my computer, snagging a snack from the fridge or a glass of water.
The Sway team has tested its effectiveness on a small scale. Users wore EEG (brainwave reading) headsets in an office and while waiting at a bus stop. In the quiet office there was a slight boost in relaxation. At the bus stop, there was a boost, too, but it wasn’t statistically significant. However, Cheng believes that a larger study–one with more than 11 participants–might shift those numbers.
Sway won’t become part of my daily routine, but it’s still a fascinating bit of design. While most apps fight for our attention, ever chasing more and more engagement between the user, service, and screen to milk more profits, Sway’s goal is to get us to engage with ourselves. It’s an anti-social network at its core, meant to build the individual back up in a digital world that’s constantly ripping our attention into fragments. Dang, maybe I should try it again.